I doubt Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, and I would agree about almost anything with regard to domestic US politics. Unless his views have changed, we certainly would not agree on gay rights. ( He says, at least, that his views have in fact changed and has apologized for remarks in the 1990s, and I think he should get the benefit of the doubt here). But he isn’t being nominated for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He is being nominated as Secretary of Defense. And on defense and foreign policy issues, Hagel’s views have much to recommend them. I testified in April, 2004, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Hagel served, about the then Mahdi Army uprising in Iraq. The chairman, Richard Lugar, and Hagel both struck me as informed and concerned about the situation. Others, like Sam Brownback, seemed almost robotic in throwing softballs to my fellow panelist, the neoconservative Richard Perle, who denied that there was any uprising. Hagel had voted for the Iraq War authorization, but raised questions even then about US ignorance of what it was getting into, and he later in the Bush years joined Democrats in voting to get out.
Here are some positive things about the Hagel nomination:
1. Chuck Hagel is a decorated war hero, having won two Purple Hearts as infantry squad leader in Vietnam. He knows what war is, unlike the usual gaggle of chickenhawks who have emerged to accuse him of not being warlike enough. The very notion of William Kristol in a uniform is enough to provoke mirth, but here is an influential man (why?) who never met a war he didn’t love. Hagel not only knows war but knows it from the point of view of the infantry and NCOs, not just the officer corps. Hagel is cautious about wars and what they can achieve, and has become more cautious over time, as his hands got burned by the Iraq resolution. This caution is admirable in a Secretary of Defense.
2. Hagel has been an advocate for veterans. He introduced legislation to limit deployments in Iraq, which failed. (Many Iraq vets served multiple 18-month tours, and many of their problems have to do with frequent, long deployments.) He was a principal co-sponsor of Sen. Jim Webb’s bill on GIs, which expanded educational opportunities for those who served after September 11 (the bill became law). Unlike many inside-the-Beltway hawks who use the troops for political purposes but cut veterans’ benefits when the war is over, Hagel cares.
3. Hagel has long opposed the use of sanctions instead of diplomacy in the Middle East, having argued on June 27, 2001 at a conference of the American Iranian Council that sanctions on Libya and Iran “isolate us” (Washington Times, March 29, 2002).
4. Hagel opposed George W. Bush’s and the Neoconservatives’ ‘muscular Wilsonianism,” the idea that the US should invade countries like Iraq and impose democracy on them: Hagel said in 2006, “You cannot in my opinion just impose a democratic form of government on a country with no history and no culture and no tradition of democracy… We have not always connected those fundamentals to our efforts.” (- International Herald Tribune, March 17, 2006)
5. After an Israeli bombing killed dozens of children at Qana during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in summer, 2006, Hagel criticized the Bush administration for declining to call for a ceasefire (i.e. supporting further Israeli military action), saying, “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now, this madness must stop.” (- Irish Times, August 2, 2006)
6. In 2009, Chuck Hagel signed a letter along with public figures such as James Wolfensohn of the World Bank and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski asking that the US government “Shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might clarify the movement’s view and test its behavior.” The letter did not call for direct US negotiations with Hamas, though it perhaps implied that other intermediaries (the EU?) might. (- International Herald Tribune, March 26, 2009). Hamas is a force in Palestinian politics and pretending it doesn’t exist and branding it a terrorist organization to which we forbid ourselves from talking just further reduces the US from being an honest broker in negotiations to being a handmaiden of Likud Party policy.
7. Hagel supports withdrawal from Afghanistan, warning in a 2009 op-ed that the US cannot dictate the outcome there, but can only try to empower Afghans to pursue their own fate. He acknowledged that much will depend on Afghan-Pakistan relations. (Washington Post, September 3, 2009) If anything, Hagel seems to have been more eager to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan than was Obama himself, and he will be an excellent steward of the coming US disengagement from Afghanistan.
8. Hagel signed on to the Global Zero proposal, spearheaded by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright, which argued for very steep reductions in the US nuclear arsenal, on the grounds that deterrence can now be achieved with relatively few warheads, mounted on submarines rather than on land and in silos. (- International Herald Tribune, May 17, 2012)
9. Hagel joined former Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni (ret.), former US ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering and others in arguing that an air attack on Iran without putting US troops on the ground could only set back but not destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and would risk actually pushing Iran to develop a nuclear warhead. (The report Hagel endorsed is available in PDf here at the Wilson Center). At this point the evidence suggests (as outgoing Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak admitted) that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear bomb, as opposed to enrichment expertise. Hagel’s position is the only reasonable one, and it is a primary reason for which warmongers, chickenhawks, and American Likudniks have come after Hagel like a pack of jackals trying to beard a lone noble lion.
10. Hagel speaks his mind on the Israel-Palestine issue, unlike almost any other American politician still seeking public office. He castigated what he called the “Jewish lobby” for intimidating American politicians. The choice of phrase was unfortunate, since AIPAC and its affiliates do not represent American Jewry, which is significantly more liberal and less enthusiastic about the far rightwing Israeli parties and policies than the self-appointed ‘Israel lobby’ is. But John McCain’s riposte that there is an Armenian lobby but not a Jewish lobby is also kind of silly. Hagel has just said what President Gerald Ford did, that US policy toward Israel and Palestine should be guided by US interests. The leader of the sane Israel lobby, J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has come to Hagel’s defense.
For Hagel’s appointment to go through is extremely important at this juncture. It will blunt if not altogether end the use by extremist Jewish nationalists of the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ to sideline critics of any aspect of Israeli policy. It will set a precedent showing that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other such organizations don’t always get their way on appointments, despite their long track record of shooting down capable Americans nominated for public service on the grounds that they are insufficiently worshipful of Israeli policy. ( Chas Freeman is a recent such victim of an orchestrated smear campaign, such that the US was deprived of his considerable expertise at a time it is desperately needed). It will put the far right wing coalition now in charge of Israel on notice that its intensifying colonization of Palestinian territory and attempt forever to forestall a 2-state solution is unacceptable. And it will signal that the US is not going to war against Iran for Bibi Netanyahu, however much William Kristol and the American Enterprise Institute demand it.
Hagel will be nominated and he will be passed by the Senate. And that process will be a turning point in the relationship of the US government to Israel and to its US lobbies. It is an extremely positive development, most of all for Israel itself, which cannot survive if it tries to annex the Palestinian West Bank (as Netanyahu obviously intends to do).